COVID-19

Maple syrup season brings challenges for Canada’s “sugar shacks”

Emma Jacobs Apr 7, 2021
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Warchi via Getty Images
COVID-19

Maple syrup season brings challenges for Canada’s “sugar shacks”

Emma Jacobs Apr 7, 2021
Heard on:
Warchi via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

In the province of Quebec, early spring means it’s sugaring season. That’s when maple trees are tapped for their sap and many people in Canada will go for a traditional meal at a sugar shack. These are seasonal restaurants, that offer an indoor dining experience with maple syrup in every course.

But thanks to the pandemic, as many as 40 of the province’s 200 sugar shacks have closed for good, and more are at risk. To preserve this beloved French-Canadian tradition, in the region that produces 70% of the global maple syrup supply, dozens of sugar shacks have organized to offer patrons a way to bring meals home.

The Courcy family normally visits a sugar shack every spring. They eat traditional foods, including maple syrup frozen over snow.

Usually, they’ll sit at long, indoor, communal tables and listen to live fiddle music. But this year, they’re picking up boxed meals to eat at home, to be supportive, said Etienne Courcy.

Sugar shacks already had a challenging business model pre-pandemic. They only open for a month or two at the start of sugaring season in early spring.

So the pandemic arrived at the worst possible time last year, said Daniel Laurin. He and his wife are the fourth generation running this sugar shack, Le Chalet des Érables.

“Everything was ready, fridges were full of meat,” he said, recalling the start of the pandemic shutdown. “And all of a sudden, the government asked us to shut down our business.”

Laurin said the maple sap harvest makes up only a fraction of their annual revenue. 

“We’re talking about $30,000 a year. Just my insurance premium costs me $100,000 a year,” he said.

So, the meal’s key. In a normal season, he said they serve 1,500 meals a day.

Pea soup, maple donuts, maple tart, ham fried with syrup and other dishes that make up a traditional meal served at a Canadian sugar shack.
Pea soup, maple donuts, maple tart, ham fried with syrup and other dishes that make up a traditional meal served at a Canadian sugar shack. (Courtesy Ma cabane à la maison)

This year, Laurin’s daughter, Stéphanie Laurin, proposed takeout meals and organized 70 sugar shacks to join in. Customers order meals online to pick up either on site or from one of the province’s largest supermarket chains, which is giving all revenues back to the sugar shacks.

Quebec food historian Nathalie Cooke, who teaches at McGill University, said she’s not surprised by the support she’s seen for the sugar shacks’ campaign.

“We don’t think of them as businesses, we think of them as part of the community,” she said.

Cooke said her friends are sharing pictures of their meals on social media, “saying, ‘Wow, look, what I’ve got, this is great. I scored.’ But you’re going to lose the the sense of interaction and cultural celebration,” she said.

Those are the kind of cultural experiences the sugar shack owners say they hope to provide again, as long as the online orders keep them going until customers can come back next season in person.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What do I need to know about tax season this year?

Glad you asked! We have a whole separate FAQ section on that. Some quick hits: The deadline has been extended from April 15 to May 17 for individuals. Also, millions of people received unemployment benefits in 2020 — up to $10,200 of which will now be tax-free for those with an adjusted gross income of less than $150,000. And, for those who filed before the American Rescue Plan passed, simply put, you do not need to file an amended return at the moment. Find answers to the rest of your questions here.

How long will it be until the economy is back to normal?

It feels like things are getting better, more and more people getting vaccinated, more businesses opening, but we’re not entirely out of the woods. To illustrate: two recent pieces of news from the Centers for Disease Control. Item 1: The CDC is extending its tenant eviction moratorium to June 30. Item 2: The cruise industry didn’t get what it wanted — restrictions on sailing from U.S. ports will stay in place until November. Very different issues with different stakes, but both point to the fact that the CDC thinks we still have a ways to go before the pandemic is over, according to Dr. Philip Landrigan, who used to work at the CDC and now teaches at Boston College.

How are those COVID relief payments affecting consumers?

Payments started going out within days of President Joe Biden signing the American Rescue Plan, and that’s been a big shot in the arm for consumers, said John Leer at Morning Consult, which polls Americans every day. “Consumer confidence is really on a tear. They are growing more confident at a faster rate than they have following the prior two stimulus packages.” Leer said this time around the checks are bigger and they’re getting out faster. Now, rising confidence is likely to spark more consumer spending. But Lisa Rowan at Forbes Advisor said it’s not clear how much or how fast.

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